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The Remarkable Versatility of David Nwaba

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Once merely a flier off the waiver wire, the former Laker suddenly looks like one of the Bulls’ most promising players.

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Need a hint as to who is the clear-cut star of the Bulls’ only winning streak this season?

Oh my gosh heart eyes emoji indeed, Stephen Noh. Welcome to Chicago, David Nwaba!

When the front office claimed Nwaba off of waivers in mid-July, most people were still grieving over the Jimmy Butler trade, the sale of Jordan Bell, and the front office’s alarmingly ignorant defense of shipping out a second round pick during a rebuild. BlogaBull did get a nice introduction to Nwaba from Vijay’s acquistion-at-a-glance piece shortly after the pickup; however, Chicago Bulls devotees in general can be forgiven for initially overlooking what Nwaba could potentially bring to the squad.

But now? Do so at your own risk, because David Nwaba is currently the unexpected spark plug this Bulls team has so desperately needed:

David Nwaba is the kind of player that Tom Thibodeau wishes he could play 49 minutes per game. At 25 years old, he not only possess excellent athleticism and tenacity, but also a keen sense of his strengths and weaknesses. That not only lends hope to the idea that he can take on an increasingly greater role with the Bulls in the future, but also creates the profile of a player characterized by rare—and highly valuable—basketball versatility.

By modern NBA standards, a tweener guard that shoots 28% from 3-PT range should not be a player that one could describe as “versatile.” Most guys that resemble that description don’t have very long careers in an era that craves floor space and guards without an identity crisis. Yet, because Nwaba has such an abundant amount of seemingly bottomless athleticism, stamina, and self-awareness; he actually inverts the value of a tweener to become a substantial annoyance against his opponents.

The very first element of Nwaba’s game that jumped off the screen at me was his ability to jump, land, restart his jump, and still get lift on his successive jump. That description doesn’t do justice to how valuable of a basketball skill this is, because it is this very trait that made Dennis Rodman the greatest rebounder of all time and prompted Phil Jackson to call Rodman, “the greatest athlete I ever coached.” It is a rare trait that serves as an amalgamation of terrific motor, limitless stamina, and superb athletic ability.

David Nwaba has it:

There are few NBA players that have the aforementioned three qualities in enough reserve to treat the hardwood like a trampoline at a moment’s notice in the way that Nwaba does. That effort combined with intelliegence (he played college ball at Cal Poly!) easily explains why Nwaba averages a combined 2.6 blocks + steals per 36 minutes:

But what has become easily the biggest surprise in Nwaba’s young season is how useful he appears to be as an offensive player. Nwaba is fully aware of the fact that he is not a skilled long range shooter, as he’s taken only 13.2% of his total field goal attempts from distance this season. He instead focuses on creating fast break situations simply by pushing the ball out of the back half and making the defense uncomfortable in transition. Out of breaks and in sets, Nwaba also has an array of methods to finish at the rim thanks to his bounce and adept footwork:

Perhaps this kind of play shouldn’t have come as a surprise given Nwaba is putting up almost the exact same stellar shooting percentage as he did in 20 games with the Lakers last season, but to watch it play out on the court is nothing short of a surprise delight. Nwaba’s current true shooting percentage of 61%, though not yet eligible for ranking, would tie for 25th overall in the NBA—coincidentally with former Bull E’Twaun Moore—and his 2-PT field goal percentage of 61.3% would rank 7th overall in the NBA for all positions. Stephen Curry is the only other guard that even comes close to Nwaba currently at 58%. The guy has been flat out one of the best finishers at the rim in basketball in the sixteen games we’ve seen from him so far this season:

His impressive comfort with finishing at the rim was on display often against the Hornets, as he consistently converted attempts over and through defenders:

And as the game against the Knicks once again confirmed, dude has bunnies too:

Nwaba’s playmaking has also gotten substantially better from his stint with the Lakers last year, as he’s more than doubled his assist percentage (11.4%) while reducing his turnover percentage (9.6%). He does a great job of consistently forcing the defense to move simply by not remaining still with the basketball. The ability to play with smart and controlled aggression is yet another mark of an intelligent player doing what he can do make up for his shooting shortcomings:

David Nwaba’s versatility gets really fun when factored into the context of the near and long future Bulls. He’s already well-suited to defend both guard positions, and although he stands at only 6’4”, he has a 7’0” wingspan and enough of a motor that makes him an unorthodox matchup for opposing wings on offense and defense. Nwaba’s athleticism gives him enough of a punch on defense to contest shots from players bigger than him, and his start-stop burst combined with his prowess at the rim makes him a chore for bigger, slower defenders. This was also on full display against the Hornets, when Nwaba caused matchup issues for both veteran defenders Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist late in the game:

Given the Bulls’ relative lack of talent on the wings thanks to Paul Zipser’s abhorrent start to the season and Denzel Valentine’s inability to stop a nosebleed, it somewhat only makes sense for the Bulls to go small and run Nwaba out at the three spot. A backcourt of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and David Nwaba is one that—in theory—balances itself out very well. Dunn and Nwaba can help make up for LaVine’s individual defense while also giving additional facilitation support to LaVine on offense. Conversely, if Dunn can keep his 3-PT shooting from dropping off completely, there’s enough talent from behind the arc—especially with Lauri Markkanen on the court as well—to make up for whatever spacing is lost from Nwaba playing on the wing.

Since Nwaba’s strengths already make him a perfect counterpart guard for Zach Lavine and a nasty defensive parallel guard alongside Kris Dunn, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t continue to benefit both players if operating from the 3. A Bulls backcourt of three guys ranging from 6’4” to 6’5” that all have some degree of versatility to their games could be quite interesting to watch once LaVine comes back. Of course, this all speculative until LaVine actually plays basketball this season, but at least Bulls fans now finally have some sliver of interest to cling to in the not-so-distant future.

David Nwaba does not make the Bulls a contender, nor is he likely to dig the Bulls out of the crater they’ve already fallen into this season. However, he has clearly demonstrated how he makes this team better in the four wins he’s been a part of this year, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll break his stride provided he remains healthy. As an athletic, intelligent, and energetic player with not even 40 games to his NBA credit yet; David Nwaba is a welcome addition to the Chicago Bulls’ rebuild effort.